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Let’s boycot these evil polluters

It turns out that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  According to the Carbon Majors Report 2017:

“Over half of global industrial emissions since human-induced climate change was officially recognized can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producing entities.”

This has led to calls for private and public investors to ‘exert pressure’ on those corporations through private communication and shareholder resolutions to cease producing greenhouse gases in future.  This is in the interest of investors themselves because of the growing threat from increasingly tight climate action legislation in many states around the world.  According to the report:

“Investors can minimize the carbon risk on their investment by encouraging companies to: Disclose in-line with the Financial Stability Board’s (FSB) Taskforce for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations, conduct 1.5-2ºC scenario analysis, adopt carbon pricing in financial accounting, communicate transition plans and investment in low-carbon R&D, engage with policy makers on positive environmental issues, and more.”

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it is too little and too late.  To remain below the 1.5oC of warming agreed in the Paris Accord requires the most of top polluting companies to cease generating greenhouse gases immediately. Only those in developing countries – such as the Chinese coal companies – can continue to produce emissions within the terms of the Paris Accord (although this is likely to push global temperatures way above the 2oC upper limit).

The alternative is for the public to take a bit more action than the usual limp practice of signing petitions (which are an irrelevance now that they don’t require the face to face gathering of real signatures) and virtue signalling on social media.  According to the report:

“The highest emitting companies since 1988 that are investor-owned include: ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, Total, and BHP Billiton. Key state-owned companies include Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil, Coal India, Pemex, and CNPC (PetroChina). Coal emissions from China are represented by the state, in which key state-owned producers include Shenhua Group, Datong Coal Mine Group, and China National Coal Group.”

So there we have it.  All we need to do is stop using products produced by these companies; products made from those products; products that used those companies’ products for fuel; and products that have been transported using those fuels – voila!  Once we do so, those companies will be out of business and we can enjoy a life powered entirely by renewable energy.

At this point, readers may have questions about the viability of such a boycott.  Take Gazprom for example.  The gas they export into Europe is mixed in with gas from the North Sea and the Middle East; especially during cold snaps when demand is high.  To boycott Gazprom would require that we cease cooking and heating our homes during the coldest winter months.  Nor would it help to switch to electric heating and cooking, since more than half of Britain’s electricity is generated from gas – including Russian gas.  Nor does boycotting the oil companies simply involve getting rid of our cars – something that very few even of the most ardent environmentalists are wont to do – we would also have to cease using plastics, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, paints, ink, and a raft of other chemical products.  Boycotting oil is an even more horrific problem since it is used in the manufacture of almost all of the household goods that make life bearable in a developed economy, including our mobile phones, computers, TVs, fridges, music systems and microwaves.  Coal also powers a large proportion of the datacentres that allow the internet to function.  And, by the way, the coal that powers the Chinese factories and the oil that fuels the global transport system is embodied in all of the solar panels and wind turbines that are supposed to solve the problem… so “green energy” will have to stop.

Okay, clearly I am being frivolous in suggesting a boycott.  But by pointing out the sort of things we would have to give up in order to put the big greenhouse gas producers out of business, we begin to see the enormity of the problem facing us.  We also start to glimpse the privations ahead of us if we were to give up the fossil fuels that currently account for more than 80 percent of the world’s energy in favour of the wind, solar and tidal energy that currently accounts for just one percent of our energy mix.  And unless we are prepared to give those things up, companies like ExxonMobil will continue to laugh at divestment campaigns.  As the satirical magazine, The Onion puts it:

“In a landmark report experts say fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the global warming crisis, new data published this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that the phenomenon is caused primarily by the actions of 7 billion key individuals.”

Surely we can all do something.  Maybe using energy efficient lightbulbs, recycling and switching to electric cars will save the day?  Sadly no, according to Damian Carrington in the Guardian:

“The greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child, according to a new study that identifies the most effective ways people can cut their carbon emissions.

“The next best actions are selling your car, avoiding long flights, and eating a vegetarian diet. These reduce emissions many times more than common green activities, such as recycling, using low energy light bulbs or drying washing on a line. However, the high impact actions are rarely mentioned in government advice and school textbooks, researchers found.”

Carbon reduction activities

Population has always been the mammoth in the room when it comes to climate change.  However, not one government on earth is looking seriously at population controls, and insofar as anyone talks about it in polite conversation it always concerns other people in other countries.  Hardly any of us in the developed world are talking about not starting their own family for environmental reasons.  Indeed, even giving up commercial air travel and selling the car is out of the question for most of us.  And while a vegetarian diet is healthier, far too many of us still enjoy a good steak far too much to voluntarily give up meat.

Instead we collude with the fantasy that solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars and recycling are going to save the day.  This is psychologically comforting, but it is a death sentence for future generations (including your own children and grandchildren if you happen to have them).

But the real killer blow is that we may have to do without most of the products of the 25 companies that produce half of the greenhouse gases anyway.  Coal, gas and oil are finite resources, millions of years in the making.  They are so energy dense that only nuclear energy can replace them (at the moment only in theory).  As we have explained before:

“There will come a day – not that far in the future – when the amount of oil (and oil equivalents) coming out of the ground is more than the day before for the very last time.  After that day, the world will have to get by on less.  The trouble is that nobody knows how to do that.  All of our political and economic theories since the dawn of the industrial age are based on the assumption that we will always have more energy tomorrow than we had today.”

We can argue about exactly when global maximum oil output will occur.  Some say it already has. Others say it will occur in the next few years.  A few see production increasing beyond 2030.  Gas and coal may take a little longer.  But they, too, will be in steep decline by 2050.  World uranium supplies are expected to peak in the 2030s at today’s rate of consumption.  So, one way or another, in the near future our children and grandchildren (and many of us) are going to be doing without many of the things we currently take for granted.

The real issue is this: are we going to live in a low-energy/low-consumption economy with runaway climate change, or are we going to make the necessary sacrifices today to allow us to live in that low-energy/low-consumption economy without the dangerous climate change? (for what it is worth, my hopes are on the latter but my money is on the former).

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